Labour deputy leadership contest: candidates on co-operatives, trade unions and welfare

As well as organising a debate for Labour leadership candidates, the Co-operative Party provided a platform for potential deputy leaders to discuss issues that mattered for co-operators across...

As well as organising a debate for Labour leadership candidates, the Co-operative Party provided a platform for potential deputy leaders to discuss issues that mattered for co-operators across the UK. The hustings featured four of the five deputy leadership candidates: Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint and Ben Bradshaw. Tom Watson, the contender for the deputy leadership race who received the most nominations (59), was unable to attend the debate.

“The co-operative way forward is a different model to the plc way forward and enables us to live our values as co-operators for a more equal society where there is less competition and more co-operation,” said Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey. She thinks co-operatives can bring an important contribution to sport and education through supporter trusts and co-operative schools. Another area where Ms Eagle sees co-operatives as playing a key role is social and elderly care. “The bigger the co-op sector, the better,” she said.

The only Labour/Co-op MP standing for deputy leadership election, Stella Creasy, said she was passionate about the idea that the future of the Labour Party lied with the future of the Co-operative Party. Co-operatives have a crucial role to play in the wider business environment, in empowering consumers, and promoting mutual values in the financial sector, she said.

Speaking about her experience as housing minister in the Labour government, Caroline Flint said she had championed community trusts, working with housing associations and trusts to enable tenants to have more say. The co-operative model can be used to empower tenants, such as in the case of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, she said. As shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change, she published the Power Book, jointly with the Co-operative Party, SERA and the LGIU. This included dozens of policy ideas for community empowerment, such as co-operative models.

Ben Bradshaw also backed the co-operative model, highlighting that the co-operative economy had grown much faster than the UK’s economy on the whole. The Exeter MP said that the Labour council in his constituency had helped develop co-operative housing and persuaded schools in Devon to go with the co-operative model. He told Co-op Party members how he was a founding member of Exeter supporter trust. Mr Bradshaw has also worked with Community Union to save his local Pluss disabled factory and turn it into a worker co-operative. “It has a lot to teach us and we can do a lot more nationally,” he said.

One of the questions from the floor asked candidates whether their party should go along with the welfare changes that would push children into poverty because it had become popular, or convince voters otherwise.

“The challenge is to be more than opposition, an alternative way to make the economy and welfare system work together,” said Stella Creasy. She suggested changing the way in which rents were taxed and mutualising the job centre. The credit union model could serve as an inspiration, she said. “Credit unions don’t just give you a loan, they help you get back on your feet.”

Caroline Flint added: “We’re going back to fight this and clearly we are not accepting changes and of course we are very worried on changes to tax credits.”. While serving as a minister for employment and welfare reform between 2007 and 2008, she looked at how to best allow the voluntary sector come in and help provide services. In recent years there has been a shift towards big companies providing services, she said.

Ben Bradshaw also explained that Labour’s amendment to the bill had been defeated. “We don’t have a majority – you don’t vote against a second reading of the bill if there are things you agree with.” Labour MPs were whipped to abstain on the Welfare Bill, which passed its second reading in parliament this week, but 48 of them voted against. This meant that headlines were not about the bill but about Labour’s division, he said.

Angela Eagle commented: “We will vote against the tax credit cuts which are coming out of the budget, we don’t believe in going back to the Victorian state,” she said, adding that people needed to have better skills, higher paid jobs and stronger trade unions.

As the host of the debate, Amnesty UK wanted to know the candidates’ view on the Mediterranean migrants. EU leaders agreed last month on resettling 60,000 asylum seekers, but the UK opted out.

“I think this is such a serious question,” said Ms Flint. “Part of what we have to do is recognise that […] we have the responsibility to do our bit. Part of that is to give funding to camps to make them as safe of possible. But we have not taken our share of refugees from those camps. We have to do what we can to prevent conflict and tackle poverty, but ultimately conflicts happen and people are displaced and we should take our fair share.”

Mr Bradshaw told members how as a teenager he had written to Amnesty International calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. He said it was a disgrace that Britain had not taken its share of refugees. Efforts could range from helping the UN stabilise regions or tackle poverty in conflict areas to responding to challenges like the Islamic State.

Commenting on the refugee crisis, Ms Creasy said that Labour’s values did not stop at the borders. “We must take our share of refugees,” she said.

Ms Eagle said that saving the Mediterranean immigrants was an immediate action that could be taken. In the longer term, the UK should try to help stabilise and return to law in those nations affected by working with the UN. “We need to make sure that money is better sent and people looked after,” she said.

Another question from the audience asked candidates which regulations regarding trade unions introduced by the Tory government they would repeal. Earlier this month business secretary Sajid Javid announced the government’s intention to criminalise unlawful picketing and make it harder for workers to strike legally, as well as for the Labour Party to get funding from trade unions.

Referring to the government’s plans Ben Bradshaw said that Labour should oppose the act vigorously, adding that it touched upon a problem that did not exist. He said the party needed to make the case for trade union membership in the country as well as help unions modernise and have representation within the new economy.

While she agreed that trade unions needed to change, Angela Eagle said this meant making them stronger not weaker. “ We should oppose the trade union bill and should make it easier for people to be protected at work.”

Stella Creasy added: “We should be clear. This bill has no place in a modern democracy.” She said that being able to organise in workplace is gong to help people better tackle challenges.

Caroline Flint, who has worked for the GMB, a general trade union in the United Kingdom agreed: “This is a partisan attack, trying to solve a problem that isn’t there. Attack on political funding is another way to attack Labour.” She added that joining trade unions was a basic human right liked to the freedom of association.

As the party is struggling to appeal to traditional Labour voters as well as to those who vote Conservative, people in the audience wanted to know how the candidates would balance the two.

Angela Eagle said the approach should start with Labour’s values and looking at how they could apply to what people need and only then talk about focus groups. Stella Creasy said the party should not be a machine that comes up every five years but should constantly engage with communities across the UK, not just as opposition but as an alternative. Caroline Flint argued that while some regions lacked a history and culture around the Labour movement, people shared the same values and wanted similar things from their government: to look after their families, have secure jobs and strong public services and an economy that is run sensibly. Ben Bradshaw said the reason why Labour lost the election was a deficit on leadership as well as a lack of trust in how it would run the economy. He said the key was not to treat people that did not vote Labour as if there was something wrong with them.

The last question from the floor focused on immigration and how the Labour Party’s position would differ from that of other parties. Ms Creasy said that often the benefits of immigration were not distributed across the country. This was not a problem of immigration, but a political failure, she said. Labour should talk to communities and be confident it can set out clear benefits as well as address the issue of employers exploiting people.

Ms Flint added that in her constituency, the Labour Party had faced a big challenge from UKIP but it had managed to win because it had listened to people’s concerns. Many areas outside of big cities suffer from a lack of skills especially where industries diminished and this was something that needed to be looked at, she said.

Mr Bradshaw said there needed to be controls on immigration as on social policy reform, but that the UK should also celebrate the contribution that migrants make to the country’s economy and public services, particularly the NHS.

Ms Eagle added: “We don’t deal with this by pandering to racism or not talking about it.” She believes Labour needs credible policies, protecting the minimum wage, protecting people from being exploited, especially migrant themselves, and dealing with insecurities in communities. “We can do that by giving them opportunities”, she said.

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